Most lessons don’t start with a Beyoncé song. But at Formation, a free Berlin-based startup school for underrepresented founders, every session does (it’s named after one of B’s songs, after all.

Formation is the brain-child of Katy Campbell, a Scot who’s been working with corporate company builders in Berlin for six years. Campbell’s aim is to give people from underrepresented groups with an idea for a startup access to the kind of network she already has.

The set-up is similar to that of many company builders — except that Formation is driven by a community of volunteers. There are workshops, mentoring sessions, chances to pitch and meet investors, all hosted by Campbell’s connections.

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“It’s me doing it, not a company, so it’s low key and fun,” says Campbell. 

Not all fun though: she sets cohort members homework too (articles to read, meetups to attend, a “why why why” document to write — Why this? Why you? Why now?). 

Applications for the second programme, which will begin mid-January, are closing next Monday; Campbell will soon have 100 plus applications to filter through. Shortlisted applicants will meet a selection committee, drawn from a range of backgrounds — “I’m cautious of my own bias,” she adds.

“Reading the applications, it blows me away that so many people who identify as underrepresented don’t feel comfortable doing this [starting a company] by themselves.”

“Reading the applications, it blows me away that so many people who identify as underrepresented don’t feel comfortable doing this [starting a company] by themselves,” Campbell says. “They’re scared to do it.” 

Enticing more underrepresented groups to start companies requires systemic change, she adds. It’s not simply the case that women or ethnic minorities or people with disabilities aren’t interested in this path. “VCs need to understand that people are afraid.” 

“Formation won’t change the world… but if more people get involved, that will have a ripple effect. Of 100 people, maybe two or three go on to be a founder, maybe two or three do something different as a job.” 

This time round Formation will be shorter (taking place over six or seven rather than 13 weeks) with two evening sessions per week and one full-day session each weekend. It’s still free, mentors and workshop hosts are volunteers, and there will be childcare on offer.

“Who would say no to helping underrepresented founders? Just assholes.” 

“I’m playing on people’s ego. People want to give back. I mentor everywhere, it fuels my own ego,” says Campbell. “When I ask people to help out, people of course say yes. Who would say no to helping underrepresented founders? Just assholes.” 

For the next programme, there will be mentors aplenty: two or three per founder. Some are from Campbell’s previous company, APX, others from Porsche (her new employer), Factory, Silicon Allee, FemGems, Unicorns in Tech and W Lounge.

It’s a fun job, says Campbell, recalling a workshop host who came in after receiving sad personal news because she didn’t want to let the programme down. “She still messages me weekly, saying the energy she got [from leading the session] was insane.” Attendees had thoroughly researched her experience in advance, so she wouldn’t have to waste time introducing herself in the session. “Every Monday I would feel this,” adds Campbell. “Tired and groggy going in; coming out wanting to change the world.” 

Plenty of corporates and accelerator programmes have got in touch hoping to partner with Formation, but Campbell isn’t yet sure how best to grow the concept. 

“I never want the founders to pay for this, I don’t think that’s fair.” 

“Maybe it will be a CoderDojo type thing,” she says, referring to the global volunteer-run community of coding clubs for young people. “Someone might come to all the sessions, learn how to do a Formation, do it in London as a community growth project.” 

There’s still time to apply for the next cohort. Applications close Monday 9 December.

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